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the future of food and farming
March 22, 2011 8:42 PM   Subscribe

How to feed 9 billion people: The global food supply is starting to get tight, with increasing sensitivity to droughts and floods causing price spikes and food shortages. The UK commissioned a report to examine how to feed a planet with a population that is set to increase to 9 billion by 2050. posted by kliuless (50 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm almost afraid to look at any of these links.
posted by tomswift at 8:44 PM on March 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


From the "oceans of 2050" link: "Having reached peak fish, the resulting fish stock collapses have meant that maintaining the annual landing of 85 million tons of fish in the 2000s became more and more energy intensive. Forty-seven million tons of fuel were used by the global fishing fleet each year over that decade, which works out to 1.8 tons of fish per ton of fuel, or 13.5lb of fish per gallon."

So a carbon tax (or just a substantial fuel tax increase) could go a long way towards curbing overfishing.
posted by jedicus at 8:54 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe we should stop feeding our tailpipes with corn and start feeding mouths?
posted by msbutah at 8:54 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world".
—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population
posted by clearly at 8:58 PM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


No worries. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a billion times: There's more than enough food for everybody. The problem is just distribution*.

*this of course has been true all decades of my existence regardless of the explosion of human numbers and I'm sure people will be saying it's true a decade from now when billions of our recently reached 15 billion are starving. They'll blame it on a war here, a civil unrest there, a natural disaster here, an economic hiccup there, but as long as there is a hungry mouth the problem will be "distribution" to them, never thinking of course wise distribution would involve getting numbers low enough to take the fragility out of the system.
posted by sourwookie at 9:04 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


No worries. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a billion times: There's more than enough food for everybody. The problem is just distribution*.

Funny. All this time I'd thought that the problem was not enough profit motive to get big corporations interested in feeding people who can't pay for their food.

I guess that's a form of distribution. If nobody can be bothered to pay to move the food around, it might as well not exist.
posted by hippybear at 9:10 PM on March 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


Distribution is always the issue. We just need to distribute some people into other people's mouths. Soylent green!
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 9:11 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm sure people will be saying it's true a decade from now when billions of our recently reached 15 billion are starving

The most pessimistic UN population growth estimate calls for 14 billion by 2100. By 2021 (i.e. "a decade from now") the high estimate is about 8.1 billion.

But anyway, the "biotech isn't the answer" article implies one simple (though difficult to implement) solution: "The loss of calories that result from feeding grains to animals instead of humans represents the annual calorie needs of more than 3.5 billion people, according to the UN Environmental Program." In other words, if we all became vegetarians then we could already feed a population of 9 billion.

Of course, if we worked to radically improve income inequality, access to clean water and vaccines and contraceptives, and improved the rights and education of women around the world we could probably hit the UN's low-end estimates of a peak of 7.5 billion in 2040, tapering down to 5.8 billion by 2100.
posted by jedicus at 9:15 PM on March 22, 2011 [9 favorites]




It's easier to plan a delay in the population increase than it is to plan for miracles.
posted by Brian B. at 9:23 PM on March 22, 2011


also btw (as seen on reddit ;) Growers of ancient "perfect food" called Quinoa sell crop and buy junk food

oh and fwiw...
TIL that in Germany, the city weighs your garbage and charges you $4 per kilogram (!) As a result, people recycle and compost almost *everything*. You need a permit to throw out furniture (once per year, max). When Germans come here, they are often shocked by our wastefulness.
posted by kliuless at 9:41 PM on March 22, 2011 [12 favorites]


Buckminster Fuller made a big deal about it in 1970, I believe, declaring that there were finally enough resources in the world for all (food, shelter, meaningful life), that from that point in history on, all scarcity would be political ... or words to that effect.
posted by philip-random at 9:42 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


TIL that in Germany, the city weighs your garbage and charges you $4 per kilogram (!) As a result, people recycle and compost almost *everything*.

Now that's a market-driven solution I would support!
posted by hippybear at 9:44 PM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Of course, if we worked to radically improve income inequality, access to clean water and vaccines and contraceptives, and improved the rights and education of women around the world we could probably hit the UN's low-end estimates of a peak of 7.5 billion in 2040, tapering down to 5.8 billion by 2100.

Am I wrong to think that only some of those things would realistically result in a lower population? Honest question here. I know more prosperous parts of the world are having fewer children, but where does that effect override fewer people dying?
posted by brennen at 9:54 PM on March 22, 2011


Population Growth Rate by Country
+
The True Size of Africa
=
A distribution problem.

Domestic scarcity is an entirely different matter, and I would agree that it is politically based.
posted by clearly at 9:55 PM on March 22, 2011


How to feed 9 billion people: The global food supply is starting to get tight

This is obviously untrue, since there is plenty of land on Earth and food comes from land, therefore there is no problem.

Not only that but the free market will feed anyone who has enough money to buy food and I have plenty so obviously everything is fine.

Oh and Erlich was wrong about a bet that he made with someone therefore all resources are infinite.

Thank you.
posted by Avenger at 9:56 PM on March 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


The first step is to stop sending food to the Jersey Shore.
posted by Davenhill at 10:28 PM on March 22, 2011


clearly: And now you see the motivation for the intervention in Libya, and the previous attempts to rehabilitate Khaddafi. Lots of people are going to be coming north, and it looks bad if you have to shoot them yourself in the Mediterranean. Much better to make sure there's a "Strong and prosperous Euro-Med zone" that can ensure refugees don't make it that far.
posted by Grimgrin at 10:37 PM on March 22, 2011


Great - and now Robert Shiller speculates (pun intended) that the next bubble could be farmland.
posted by symbioid at 10:39 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is little we can do as first world residents, to alleviate world food supply. Using less petrol, less water, less resource intensive crops here does not really translate into more food everywhere else. Such things might be laudable, but they really only allow us to pat ourselves on the back, letting us enjoy the feeling of what good world citizens we can be. Some of the most serious problems out there do not fall under our jurisdiction. They are beyond what we can control.

It is a distribution problem, though that is such a simplification, so as to be a platitude. Lack of economic freedom, lack of mobility freedom, lack of political freedom are all bigger causes of food and water scarcity. Poor distribution of food is but one result.

It should also be said that the world as a whole is remarkably prosperous now, possibly more than it's ever been. Nobody could have foreseen exactly how well things have turned out.

Than again, doomers gotta doom.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:31 PM on March 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


Considering the historical context, things seem to be improving rather than getting worse. Before people get too carried away by the size of the numbers, it might be worth taking a look at this. Peak fertility was 50 years ago and has been in an increasingly steady decline since. Also, what looks exponential is often logistic.

This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your regularly scheduled doom and gloom.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:51 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


The important thing to do is quote Malthus a lot, and repeat endlessly that nothing can be done, human tragedy, etc. etc.. That way one can continue to focus on video games and indy films, without having to worry about lobbying for solutions.
posted by happyroach at 12:09 AM on March 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's a great Mark Bittman piece from the NYT on meat production and it's link to resource destruction, "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler."

TL;DR: Meat production consumes many more resources than it outputs. It also degrades our environment. You don't have to stop eating meat, but you should eat less. It'll save the planet.

It's actually very level, far more so than my synopsis.
posted by artof.mulata at 12:17 AM on March 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


The important thing to do is quote Malthus a lot, and repeat endlessly that nothing can be done, human tragedy, etc. etc.. That way one can continue to focus on video games and indy films, without having to worry about lobbying for solutions.
posted by happyroach


there's no good revolution
just power changing hands
there is no straight solution
except to understand

so listen to my song of life
you won't need a gun or a knife
successful conversation will get you very far
posted by philip-random at 12:17 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is little we can do as first world residents, to alleviate world food supply

1. Voluntarily sterilize ourselves before reproducing. This serves two purposes: it minimizes the total resource consumption for which we are personally responsible (if I create a tree of descendants, their consumption will vastly outweigh any conceivable personal consumption of my own) and it creates space for

2. Raising children who already exist and need a loving family to grow up in. It's currently very easy to find such children no matter where you live, but as fostering becomes a more fashionable way to parent it will create space for

3. Increasing our refugee intake. Immigration priorities in first-world countries ought to go: refugees first, then family re-union, then population maintenance via subsidized immigration from whichever areas are currently suffering the most severe resource shortages. People usually retain strong emotional connections to their countries of origin, and the more people from poor countries we encourage and support to resettle in our rich ones, the stronger will be the ties between countries and the greater will be the diffuse, informal resource flow from rich to poor via family connections, which will effectively

4. Boost de-facto aid to poor countries massively above the 0.7%-of-GDP millennium development goal without concentrating that aid into centralized money streams easily parasitized by corrupt officials for personal gain, which will allow access to

5. Improved availability of reproductive and health education especially for women, improved access to contraception, and a reduced incentive to create children in large numbers as insurance for care in old age.

I'd love to believe that my foster children's foster children's foster children could live in a world with at least some of the biodiversity that I've been lucky enough to have grown up with.
posted by flabdablet at 12:22 AM on March 23, 2011 [12 favorites]


"How to feed 9 billion people"

Probably a buffet.
posted by klangklangston at 1:37 AM on March 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


A Warren Buffet.

Eat The Rich!
posted by artof.mulata at 1:51 AM on March 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


Great - and now Robert Shiller speculates (pun intended) that the next bubble could be farmland.

This would make me sad as someone who has wanted to buy land since he was a early teenager.
posted by AndrewKemendo at 3:06 AM on March 23, 2011


Saw a bumper sticker once that read: Rugby players eat their dead.

There you go.
posted by bwg at 3:59 AM on March 23, 2011


I say we use facebook somehow
posted by the noob at 4:57 AM on March 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


Any discussion of solutions that doesn't include dealing harshly with food speculation is automatically suspect.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 5:20 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


flabdablet: all your connected points are really good, but the 3 and 4 connection is insightful and eye-opening. Any sources you know of that discuss this? Any (U.S.) political positions in accord with that?
posted by yesster at 5:57 AM on March 23, 2011


Right, but the thing is, we don't have to worry about any of this because the Rapture is coming and Angry Muscular Jesus is going to sweep us all into heaven.
posted by aramaic at 6:03 AM on March 23, 2011


Something to consider is that we are going to see an increase in population for about the next 50 years or so, and then the world population is going to drop like a stone.

Our birthrates are as low as they've ever been, but people live so long now that our world population continues to rise. In the late 80s/early 90s, the average Bangladeshi woman was pregnant 9 times and had 7 children, 5 of whom reached adulthood. Now, the average Bangladeshi woman is pregnant 3 times and has 2 children who reach adulthood. As women gain power throughout the developing world, where ever that is, even in places like Iran, the birthrate plummets. We need to work on getting reproductive services to sub-Saharan Africa, and after that, virtually the entire world will have some level of access to birth control. Even if it means having 2 or 3 kids by the time you're 24 and then getting surgically sterilized, that works for a lot of women in a lot of places.

Depending on the infant and child mortality rate of your country, replacement level birth rate is slightly over 2 births per woman. When given the choice, about 20%-25% of women choose not to reproduce at all. About 50% become "low fertility"- women who have one or two children, thereby not increasing the overall population in the long term. Then the percentages decrease by orders of magnitude- of the 25% percent who have three or more children, something like 8 in 10 of them have three or four kids. The number of women who choose to have more than four children is extremely small, like single digit percentage small. There's a reason that TLC is wall to wall Giant Family Reality Shows- it's an oddity.

When the great die off begins- when we start dying off faster than we're born- it's going to me some crazy stuff. The Japanese are on the forefront of this trend, and are (seriously) exploring the possibility of robots to care for the elderly because they lack the workers to do it. Capitalism, powered by perpetual growth, will probably need to be replaced by some other economic system. Our planet may actually get a chance to catch her breath. We know now that we can feed six billion people, and we can probably feed twelve billion or so, at least for a while. Fortunately, we won't have to do that forever, only a generation or two, before human population starts it's slide toward sustainable levels.
posted by Leta at 6:10 AM on March 23, 2011 [11 favorites]


Mean. It's going to mean some crazy stuff. Sorry.
posted by Leta at 6:12 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


There were some relevant links explaining commodity (including food) speculation previously.
posted by monkeys with typewriters at 6:29 AM on March 23, 2011


I agree with Leta that the easy solution is empowering women. Easily available birth control and abortions. Education that offers equal opportunities to men & women. Micro-finance that only lends money to female entrepreneurs. etc.

I'd disagree that low-firtility rates are doom to our financial system. Yes, the exuberant large market capitalization growth stock might die out, but our technological exuberance should remain.

In other words, owning established corporations, land, etc. would serve merely to diversify your portfolio, assuming they declined in value slower than currency, while only energetic small companies experience significant growth. Any governments can easily create growth and inflation by lowering income taxes and printing more money, i.e. tax uninvested savings.

A capitalist system that actually focused so much capital towards the venture capital phase and small companies might make all other economic systems appear economically, politically and morally inviable.

Also, rich nations may stave off population reduction by attracting upwardly mobile immigrants, buying themselves time to study the problems and invent social solutions, ala paying native born women for raising babies.

In any case, we're talking soo far away into the future that who knows what lies in store, dramatic extensions in lifespan, artificial intelligence, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:23 AM on March 23, 2011


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees; grease 750,000,000 muffin pans.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:30 AM on March 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Capitalism, powered by perpetual growth, will probably need to be replaced by some other economic system. Our planet may actually get a chance to catch her breath.

This, of course, assumes that the inmates don't take control of the asylum and start using The Handmaid's Tale as a how-to book for keeping the capitalist world order ticking.

I agree with everything you said, but I think it's probably a good thing that the Powers That Be seem to be largely ignoring it for the moment as outside their planning horizon. Because, as you point out, what it effectively does is pit women's rights and reproductive freedom squarely against growth-dependent capitalism. And I'm not entirely sure that's going to be an easy win.

Just as an e.g., although some countries like Japan seem to be taking the idea of a contracting population in stride, others aren't. France seems to have woken up to the idea that the (white) population isn't reproducing at a replacement rate, and their solution seems to be to pay women to have more kids, and otherwise subsidize child-bearing, directly and indirectly. Spain and Poland both have similar schemes. Ditto Germany.

Given that we're just beginning the demographic transition, these "baby bonus" schemes are probably just the tip of the iceberg; they represent the 'carrot', an inducement to voluntarily have more children, but there's no reason why as countries get more desperate (and the discussions become more and more tinged with racism, as they already have become in France) that there won't be a 'stick'.

I think reliable birth control is hands-down the most significant invention of the 20th century; the atom bomb hasn't got shit in comparison to the long-term effect I think that reliable birth control will have on our species, given that we've only had it it for a few generations now and the impact has been enormous. But I think we're just starting to see how reproductive choice and the decoupling of sex and reproduction can affect not just social norms here and there, but potentially the very assumptions that underly growth economics. I would expect a lot of resistance from everyone with a significant investment in the status quo.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:07 AM on March 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Can the Earth actually sustain this amount of people and this amount of land? Ultimately the soil will be stripped of nutrients and only the most productive crops will be grown.
posted by Sonyab at 8:20 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


clearly: And now you see the motivation for the intervention in Libya, and the previous attempts to rehabilitate Khaddafi.

You seriously overestimate how seriously and immediately policy makers take these kinds of longer-term problems if you honestly think this. Now, if there were oil profits to be made today, on the other hand...
posted by saulgoodman at 9:37 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the beginning we will tell the poor they will be uploaded to silicon, digitized and live in a computer generated virtual paradise until the food crisis has passed. The promise of restoration after a set period of time will keep the rioting down. Fox news will even suggest that we may have made the paradise of the poor too perfect. After the great upload is completed there will be talks about when we should start the restoration and at what rate. It is ar that time that the survivors will learn that we couldn't store those files forever. Thus for the uploaded, after they experience this temporary respite, we sent them to an end of life sim where they imagined themselves restored. Then after some time in the post-restoration simulation they were be shutdown and experienced death. Disk space and cpu are limited, just like food. These people were going to starve anyway. Restoration was not an option. There was never going to be enough food. Keeping them forever in limbo wasn't possible. We processed 5 billion people. So we simply simulated the restoration. They got to live their final days in a better world than they might possibly have returned to. Look around this dirty place trashed by a couple of awful generations.

The final truth will come out a generation later. The uploads never worked. There was no paradise for the poor and starving. Just a shot of phenolbarbital before we threw them, unconscious and dying into biogas digester. Some may have woken up in the tank, but they wouldn't have lived long. Anyway it was long ago. Grandpa's generation had to make difficult choices. The world was starving to death.
posted by humanfont at 10:59 AM on March 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


saulgoodman: As much as i respect your supercilious assertion that oil is the only factor at work here, maybe you want to look at the news reports regarding Libya and immigration before you assert that policy makers are uninterested in the long term problem of immigration.

Here are some to get you started: European Commission and Libya agree a Migration Cooperation agenda during high level visit to boost EU-Libya relations, Brussels, 5 October 2010.
Libya threatens to stop help on illegal EU immigration, February 20, 2011
Libya suspends help on illegal EU immigration, Mar 20, 2011.

Italy-Libya in immigration deal, Saturday, 29 December 2007.
Italy sees big drop in illegal immigration after accord with Libya. 2010-04-18.
Italy warns of immigration emergency on Libya attack 21 Mar, 2011.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:04 AM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Grimgrin--good grief, please don't misinterpret my comment that way! I didn't mean it that way for a second. I'm actually (relatively speaking) on-board with the allied actions in Libya! I actually don't think oil's the motivating factor here at all.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:21 PM on March 23, 2011


I didn't mean short-term immigration issues don't matter to some of the allied nations--I just meant that the possibility of longer-term global food shortages aren't. I think I misread your original remark.

Until I see a good pattern of evidence to the contrary (and I might end up eating these words some day), I still think the primary motivation here actually is legitimate diplomatic concern about what kind of message it would send to other insecure autocratic regimes in the region if Qaddafi succeeds in overcoming this popular revolt by slaughtering his opposition. That's not to say there aren't a lot of secondary interests at play. But even if there weren't, would that be a good outcome?
posted by saulgoodman at 1:31 PM on March 23, 2011


Africa can gladly have these lima beans from my plate.
posted by oxford blue at 3:10 PM on March 23, 2011


We should repost Grimgrin's comment to the new Libya thread and continue the oil chat there.

You should however consider that Libya buying arms form Italy and Russia instead of France, the U.S., etc. might be one very good reason for France, the U.S., etc. to play the moral high ground card, help depose the current regime, and start funneling aid money to a new regime.

All the real morality here turns not upon our most apparent immediate actions but upon the final state of the new regime, i.e. broad based democracy vs. new but weaker dictatorship.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:04 PM on March 23, 2011


There is little we can do as first world residents, to alleviate world food supply.

Actually, there is one thing you can do. Europe and the US both have massively subsidised agriculture. This causes huge distortions in the global food market and economy.

The most effective thing you can do is to put political pressure on your govt to drop agricultural subsidies. Plus of course, get used to paying the real market price for your food.

Or could it be that the famous American phobia of "socialism" is nothing more than hypocrisy?
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:35 PM on March 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


the 3 and 4 connection is insightful and eye-opening. Any sources you know of that discuss this?

All my own work, I'm afraid. Just seemed totally obvious to me.

Any (U.S.) political positions in accord with that?

If by "in accord" you mean "180° opposed to": plenty.

We can't have our nice white country overrun with poor brown people! That would be wrong. Hell, some of them don't even speak English.
posted by flabdablet at 1:02 AM on March 24, 2011


Why not cast the Egypt-eruption about food?

80+ million (up from 23 million at the upswing of the ME being a bigger exporter of oil - the 1960's)

2 inches of rain averaged for the entire land of Egypt. 7 inches a year in the highest area.

Where's the food grown? Nile Delta. And that is 0.3% of the nation.

I'll leave it to the "Malthus was wrong" posters to show how the population and land mass works out.

But hey - the evacuation of parts of Japan is not due to safe food/water....its due to all that safe radiation - right?
posted by rough ashlar at 7:04 AM on March 24, 2011


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